When conducting research for this piece, I expected to find Assassin’s Creed 3 towards the bottom of the bunch in terms of critical reception for the series. To my surprise Assassin’s Creed 3 is actually one of the better-reviewed games of the series, sitting below just AC2, Brotherhood and Black Flag. Who knew?
This is incredibly interesting because many people cite 3 as their personal nadir for the series; the game where they left the world of the Assassins for pastures new.
In a piece I wrote the other day, I explained how Assassin’s Creed 4: Black Flag gave the series a new lease of life, if not save it altogether. For that statement to stand true, Assassin’s Creed 3 had to be bad, right?
Assassin’s Creed 3 was not a bad game, in fact, it was probably the game that had the most potential before launch. It had a new engine, a new protagonist, a new era and a new setting on a new continent! It was Ubisoft’s response to all the reasons why the series was becoming stale. The problem was, while it got a lot right, it took these advantages and squandered them. In some cases, horribly so.
What was so startling about looking for what was so good about AC3 was that the best I came up with was the antagonists. By far and away Charles Lee and in particular Haythan Kenway were the most interesting, well rounded and deplorable antagonists of the series. Charles Lee was designed so well that even today I get the irresistible urge to sock him in the mouth–he just had one of those faces, even in digital form.
As for Kenway, his character was helped by the fact you played as him in the early part of the game. Believing he was an assassin, players invested time and energy into him as a character. Cleverly, Ubisoft’s use of Kenway as a perceived protagonist really brought to light the shades of grey the Templars and the Assassins are contained within–none truly right but neither truly wrong. This polish and attention to detail to this one character is a sign of what the game could have been. To date, no other antagonist comes close to this level of characterisation and Ubisoft would do well to go back and use Kenway as an example, a totem pole, for all their antagonists in the series.
In contrast, Connor, the main protagonist of the game, is not the type of character that all future Assassins should be based on. That is not Connor’s fault though. Considering what he has been through at an early age, Connor has every right to be introverted and humourless–watching your mother die, your village burn and having to fend for yourself at 13 can do that to a kid.
No, the problem for Connor, and as a consequence, Assassin’s Creed 3, is Ubisoft bit off more than they could chew by setting the game in the middle of a grand conflict that we all knew the outcome to.The American War of Independence was only going to go one way, and not even the assassins could change that. Even then, another conflict was thrown in, that of the American Indians, and Connor’s own personal objectives to kill Charles Lee and Haytham Kenway. This led to a muddled plot, where, in many cases, Connor became a side story to the larger wars. Yes, he was involved, but the history dictated his moves. In any other AC game, if a character had burned your village and killed your mother, you’d have killed that sucker as fast as Kratos gutting a Centaur. In this case, it turned out to be George Washington, so, obviously, Connor can’t kill the leader of the revolution and future President, all he can do is mope about it. It makes Connor seem weak and accentuates his brooding personality to the point at which it becomes unbearable.
The American War of Independence should have been the periphery, rather than the main part of the plot. Connor could have interacted and affected it, yes, but the bulk of the story should have been within it, rather than revolve around it. That was a major problem that affected the entire game. It was a nice idea in theory, but in practice, such a large and interactive plot was very difficult to pull off.
This problem of the developers biting off a bit more than they can chew continues in the world they built. Of course, there is nothing wrong with ambition, but it has to tempered with reality, and for AC3 the world just seemed too big. The frontier was a nice idea but there was just not enough to do and what there was was not that engaging. The homestead was a good addition, but it got fairly boring quickly. Even the cities seemed lifeless and boring.
Up until AC3 the Assassins games had been based around large cities, while the developers should be applauded for trying to change the identity of the game, they went too far the other way. Boston and New York were young cities, built with more modern technology, so they were the buildings were small and the roads wide. Quite simply, they weren’t the age old vibrant cities of Rome or Constantinople that were close quarters, massive and perfect for running the rooftops and climbing.
When you realise that the game was rushed to coincide with the 2012 Mayan calendar end-of the-world Apocalypse thingy, the fact it feels rushed makes sense. If the developers had been given more time, maybe a more polished game would have resulted. Yes, it had a new engine but it launched with a lot of glitches, turning players away as a result.
The major issue with AC3 is it took too many risks when players were already jaded. Coupled with the poor protagonist and an era that left little room for manoeuvre and many players felt this was the straw that broke the camels back. The risks were poorly conceived, the plot muddled and the era stifling rather than freeing.
However, when looked at with fresh, less jaded eyes, AC3 is actually a very good game, deserving of its praise, just with a few polish issues that an extra 6 months to a year could easily have sorted.
If you haven’t played it, it is well worth going back and checking it out.